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Masal Bugduv and the Wild White Yonder of Truth

First: I’ve been in contact with someone who claims to be the author of the Masal Bugduv hoax. He confirms the “Little Black Donkey” origin story, and takes it a step further by pointing out a connection with the fake Moldovan newspaper that was so obvious I missed it. Diaro Mo Thon=Diary of My Ass, M’asal beag dubh=My little black ass. See, there’s an ass theme. Hey.

He also claims to be behind the great Galway donkey-sex hoax of 2007 (Boing Boing’s take), so it would appear that this site has finally had the encounter with a serial donkey-themed prank artist for which it has always seemed destined.

There’s a lot more to relate here, but we’re still looking into the story. I’m hoping there will be something from Fredorrarci soon.

Second: Okay, time for the inevitable lecture about what the hoax means for the concept of truth on the internet. I’ll try to keep this short.

Ever since Fredorrarci broke the story, there’s been a tendency to interpret it as a case of the blogosphere triumphing over the mainstream media. The Times fell for the hoax, a blogger revealed it (with a little help from a commenter on The Offside), the old powers of journalism can’t keep up with the foxy ways of contemporary information, big win all round for amateur expertise. I thought about it this way myself at first, but on reflection I think it’s just about exactly the wrong approach.

To see why, you have to look at the movement of information in the hoax, which exemplifies the tendency of data on the internet to trickle upward. Because hierarchically low-level online information (say, blog comments and forum posts) tends to reflect local knowledge and specialized expertise, there’s a natural tendency for sources of hierarchically high-level information (magazine and newspaper articles) to look to them when compiling their more general and introductory content.

The Masal Bugduv prankster seems to have planted the lie by seeding fake AP news stories in blog comments, as though they’d been copied and pasted there. This tricked bloggers at sites like Caught Offside, who ran summaries of the stories as though they’d actually done the research, when really all they’d done was to read the phony comments. That in turn tricked larger soccer news sources like Goal.com. And from there the story jumped up to print media like When Saturday Comes and the Times.

If you were a writer for the Times with an assignment to throw together a list of 50 promising players from around the world—an assignment you, your editor, and most of your readers will implicitly regard as semi-interesting filler—then yes, of course you should make sure you’ve actually seen all the players you’re writing about. But you’re on a deadline, and how many people have actually seen Moldova’s most promising 16-year-olds? You do some Googling, and when you find Masal Bugduv you see that his story is repeated at every level beneath you on the information hierarchy. Magazines have reported it, big websites have reported it, bloggers have reported it, blog commenters have debated it, and there’s no doubt on any of these levels, there’s an implicit conviction that it’s true. There’s nothing to make you suspicious.

I’m not saying the Times piece was honest or noble; the absurdity of it was plainly exposed by their reaction to being found out. But the blogosphere wasn’t structurally less gullible than the MSM; in fact it was the gullibility of the blogosphere that paved the way for the gullibility of the MSM in the first place. In my opinion, what this shows is that interpreting the story through an embattled-MSM-besieged-by-bloggers narrative is actually a little conservative: what the story ought to do is to reveal the collapse of some of those traditional hierarchies of information. Fredorrarci and the Times writer were, in this case, both just guys sitting at a computer. Fredorrarci happened to be more thorough about it, not because he’s a blogger—plenty of bloggers weren’t smart about this story—but because, as a writer, he’s unusually smart and conscientious.

So to my mind the villain here isn’t the low fact-checking standards of the MSM, it’s the low editorial-content standards of everybody. Football writing is soaked at every level with sloppily contrived 50-best lists, the transfer season is essentially one long festival of extremely boring fiction, and that climate of linty hype is precisely what this hoax was designed to satirize.

We don’t need a new medium that will harness the power of tomorrow to do a better job researching questions. We need better questions.

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Masal Bugduv and the Wild White Yonder of Truth

by Brian Phillips · January 16, 2009

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